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Six Aussies dead as Lao Airlines plane carrying 49 people crashes into Mekong River

A family of four, an explosives expert and his father have been identified as the six Australians killed after a plane crashed in Laos in bad weather, killing 49 people.

Sydney tax agent Gavin Rhodes, his wife Phoumalaysy (Lea), their daughter and baby son died after the twin-turbo aircraft crashed into the Mekong.

Michael Creighton, 42, and his father Gordon Bruce Creighton, 71, from the northern NSW town of Glen Innes, were also killed in the crash.

Debris was seen floating in the river at the scene of the disaster, while suitcases were wedged in mud on the riverbank, the AFP reports.

Around a dozen rescuers were using a crane perched on a floating platform in the middle of the Mekong to try to winch the submerged aircraft from the river, which was swollen by a recent tropical storm.

“So far eight bodies have been found. We don’t yet know their nationalities, said Yakao Lopangkao, director-general of Lao’s Department of Civil Aviation, who was at the crash site in Pakse.

“We haven’t found the plane yet. It is underwater. We’re trying to use divers to locate it,” he told AP.

Divers from a Thai rescue team were on the scene to assist in the operation.

The Rhodes family were at the start of a three-week holiday in Asia, with Mr Rhodes posting on his Twitter account last week that he was ”packing for 2 kids for 3 weeks away”.

He said the family were due to be in Laos until October 31 before spending three days in Bangkok.

”Leave early tomorrow. Flying thai airlines in cattle class,” he posted on October 10.

On September 18 Mr Rhodes, who worked alongside his family in the Etlanda taxation firm, posted about his excitement about going on holidays.

”Not long till I am in laos for a few weeks and can get roadside food there. Cant wait,” he said.

His last tweet was yesterday of his 17-month-old son Manfred sleeping in their hotel in Vientiane.

A  Laotian woman who said she was Phoumalaysy Rhode’s aunt was visibly upset as she entered the Rhode’s family home in Peakhurst in Sydney’s south west.

She said Laotian authorities were yet to retrieve her niece and Gavin Rhode’s bodies from the river and wept as she said she was supposed to be on the holiday with them but it was too hot.

“I was very close to her. I just talked to my brother this morning (Lea’s father), they are waiting in a temple,” she said.

“They ask me to come. Last year we went together but it’s too hot so I didn’t want to.

“I can’t believe it.”

Lea’s brother Pouwann Skoolbunthit said he was told of the tragedy at 9pm last night and relatives told him this morning the crash scene was unaccessible by family members.

”He said he couldn’t get to the scene at 4.30am (Lao time),” he said.

”Nobody left. They had two children now all gone. It must have been terrifying.”

He said his sister arrived with him in Australia in 2000 and she had stopped working after she was married to Gavin.

Mr Skoolbunthit said the family had been urged not to go to Laos for a holiday but failed to explain exactly why.

”A lot of people tried to tell them not to go,” he said.

“Come for holiday and here and then go back together and Lea’s family together.

He said air travel in his home country was relatively safe.

“They safe. It’s common but only one plane domestic,” he said.

Several carloads of family and friends arrived at the home throughout the morning.

News Corp Australia spoke to Mr Rhodes’ sister this morning who asked that the family’s privacy be respected.

”This is a tough time for all of us,” she said.

In a statement issued by the Rhodes family they said they would not be providing interview requests over the incident.

”The Rhodes Family kindly ask all members of the Australian and Foreign Press to respect their privacy at this difficult time,” the statement read.

”We will not be providing comment or information. Any requests for interviews will be declined.”

Mr Rhodes worked at family taxation firm Etlanda Taxation.

An emotional staff member answered the saying they would not be any comment.

An employee at the Douang Deuane Hotel in Vientiane where the Rhodes family had been staying since October 11 described them as ”very, very happy”.

”They were a very, very happy family. They had very pretty children,” the employee told News Corp Australia.

He said that the family were in Laos to holiday and visit Mrs Rhodes’s local relatives.

The family had stayed at the same hotel on at least two previous visits to the country, the employee said.

”They come to this hotel many, many times,” he said.

On the Etlanda website Mr Rhodes was described as being a University of Western Sydney graduate who started his career 17 years ago.

He joined the family firm five years ago with a focus on small business management and taxation planning.

He became a partner in a franchise of pizza chain Crust on the Gold Coast and was looking at purchasing a second franchise.

Michael Creighton was the Operations Manager for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – a non-profit European humanitarian organisation – and had been in Laos for almost a year, an NPA source confirmed.

Michael grew up in Glen Innes, the eldest of three children, before joining the Australian Defence Force and later the United Nations.

He spent the past 20 years working on aid projects around the world, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Switzerland, Cambodia and parts of Africa.

”Unfortunately Michael’s father who was visiting him was on the same plane,” the source said.

”So many people worked with Michael, the industry of explosive removal is small family. Many people knew him. He was excellent and one of the industry’s top guys.”

Mr Creighton was the former husband of Miss Australia 1999 and former Tasmanian MP Kathryn Hay, the first woman of Aboriginal descent to be elected in the state, The Examinerreports.

The Tasmanian Parliament was informed of Mr Creighton’s death in question time today by the Children’s Minister Michelle O’Byrne, who expressed her condolences on behalf of the house for Ms Hay. 

Mr Creighton’s fiancee, who also lives and works in Laos and is believed to work for the Australian Government and is also from Glenn Innes, is in Lao’s capital Vientiane where the plane flew out from.

NPA has offered Mr Creighton’s fiancee support and she is being assisted by Australian Government consular officials in Laos.

She posted a heartfelt message on Facebook just hours ago paying tribute to the ”love of my life”.

Gordon Creighton was visiting his son in Indochina and the flight to Pakse was a routine flight for his son as part of his work helping to de-mine one of the most mined countries in the world following decades of conflict in the 20th century, the NPA source said.

Mr Creighton was one of the leaders in his field and previously worked at The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

His father was visiting him in Laos to experience some of his son’s humanitarian work.

The Creighton’s family issued a statement thanking family, friends and the public for their support.

”We have lost a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a fiance and a best mate in one tragic circumstance and are trying to come to terms with our loss. We request privacy to grieve at this devastating time.”

Gordon was a retired school teacher and a well-loved member of the Glen Innes community, the family said in the statement.

He was a long-serving president and life member of his beloved Glen Innes “Magpies” Rugby League Club and board member of Group 19 rugby league.

Gordon worked at the local primary school for 30 years and was heavily involved in the town’s sporting communities.

The flight had reportedly been delayed by bad weather, with tropical storm Nari battering Laos’ south and central provinces.

A witness told media the aircraft appeared to have been hit by a strong gust which forced its nose upwards.

An airline ratings service says the aircraft had not undergone a safety audit. The plane crashed into a river during fierce weather.

Jeffrey Thomas from airlineratings.com says the plane was new.

”The major problem with the airline is that it has not taken part in an audit which is conducted by the international air transport association. It’s their operational and safety audit. To actually join IATA, which is the major body in aviation today, you actually have to pass this OSA audit. Airlines that have passed it have a 4.3 times better safety record than those that have not.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) in Canberra  confirmed this morning that Australian officials were on their way to the crash site to identify the bodies of those killed.

”Australian consular officials are travelling to Pakse today. We expect the recovery and identification efforts will recommence at first light,” a spokesman said.

”This may take some time. Our thoughts are with all those affected by this tragedy.”

The spokesman said that the airline had confirmed there were absolutely ”no survivors” from the tragic incident.

”The passenger manifest for this flight confirms that there were six Australians on board: a family of four and a family of two. Consular officials are in contact with their families, providing consular support.”

A passenger list released by the airline included five from Thailand, five from Australia, three from Korea, seven from France, one from the US, one from China, one from Taiwan, one from Canada and two from Vietnam.

But DFAT confirmed six Australians were aboard  flight QV301.

A DFAT spokesman refused to comment on why the airline manifest said there were only five Australians on board.

All of the Australian families of the deceased from the Laos crash have now been contacted.

The plane carrying 44 passengers and five crew went down around 8km from the Pakse airport in Champasak province in southern Laos, officials said.

A passenger manifest provided by the airline earlier listed 39 passengers, but this has since been revised upwards.

“Upon preparing to land at Pakse Airport the aircraft ran into extreme bad weather conditions and was reportedly crashed into the Mekong River. There were no news of survivors at this time,” it reads.

The aircraft then came down near Done Kho Island about 9km northwest of Pakse Airport and was completely submerged in the Mekong River.

A Pakse resident told the Bangkok Post that the crash scene was a horrendous sight.

“The Chinese Temple in front of my house has become an emergency centre,” he said.

“I saw lifeless bodies laying about and other lifeless bodies being brought in, some connected to IV drips.

“It’s complete chaos out front, as emergency vehicles grapple with usual traffic on this pot-holed, muddy stretch of road. Hundreds of people are loitering about, some curious, others presumably concerned for their loved ones.

“It’s absolute horror.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had learned of the deaths with “deep shock and great sadness” and that France was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash.

Pakse is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.

“I can now confirm, according to our reports, that all 44 people on board have died, including five Thai,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told AFP.

Pictures on Thai television showed a small plane, half submerged in the river, with what appeared to be bodies lying on the banks.

An official at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok told Yonhap news agency that three South Koreans were also among the dead.

State-owned Lao Airlines confirmed the crash in a statement on its official Facebook page, in which it expressed “our condolences to family, friends, colleagues and relatives” of the passengers.

It said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather and had crashed into the Mekong River.

“There were no news of survivors at this time,” it said, but did not confirm the number of deaths.

“Lao Airlines is taking all necessary steps to coordinate and dispatch all rescue units to the accident site in the hope of finding survivors and at the same time informing relative of the passengers,” the English language statement said.

The QV301 flight set off from Vientiane on time at 2.45pm (6pm AEDT) and was supposed to arrive in Paske just over an hour later, but crashed as it prepared to land.

A spokesman from aircraft manufacturer ATR in France confirmed the crash and told AFP that the state-owned Lao Airlines flight was one of its twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 planes. He said Lao Airlines has a fleet of six ATR-72 planes.

An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Laos told AFP on condition of anonymity that all on board the plane had been killed.

Founded in 1976, the carrier operates a fleet of ATR-72 turboprop, Airbus A320 and Chinese-made MA60 planes, serving domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to its website.

It has a chequered safety record.

The country has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network, whose data showed that the country’s safety record has improved dramatically in the last decade.

The last fatal air accident was in October 2000 when eight people died when a plane operated by the airline – then called Lao Aviation – crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country.

Communist Laos, landlocked between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, is a closed country with a secretive one-party government.

The nation of about seven million people is one of Asia’s poorest countries and is highly dependent on foreign donors.

The economy is relatively insulated from global trade and financial networks, though Laos has become a popular tourism destination and mining has played an increasingly important role in growth.



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